HOW GOOD can the Cardinals be? Earl Clark knows. Back in April, the then sophomore, who had blossomed during Louisville's run to the Elite Eight, declared for the NBA draft. At 6'9", 220 pounds, the smooth-moving forward has the athletic grace and inside-out skills that pro scouts covet, and he was widely projected to be a first-round pick. But Clark never made it to the draft. After traveling all the way to Houston—on his own dime—to work out for the Rockets, he got as far as his hotel room before changing his mind and retreating to Louisville. "Each year I've been here this team has gone further," he says, "and I realized that this was an opportunity to win a championship."
The springy junior now gets another year to mature and develop his game under Rick Pitino, and one of the most complete teams in the Big East retains the services of a player capable of carrying it to the Final Four. Clark entered last year's NCAA tournament as a reserve and left it a star, averaging team highs in points (14.5) and rebounds (8.3) while wowing everybody with his versatility. His big moment came in Louisville's Sweet 16 rout of Tennessee, in which he scored 17 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked four shots, two on three-pointers. Says senior point guard Andre McGee, "Earl's a big matchup problem."
The same could be said about senior swingman Terrence Williams, a 6'6" defensive stopper who fancies himself a point forward at the other end of the floor—he led the team in assists (4.5 per game) last season. Giving Williams and Clark a boost up front is highly touted freshman Samardo Samuels, a 6'8", 240-pound banger who appears ready to replace the departed David Padgett in the middle.
The backcourt has plenty of experience. Junior Jerry Smith is a career 42.1% shooter from beyond the arc, and because of his great range the new 20'9" three-point line shouldn't bother him. At the point, McGee beat out junior Edgar Sosa for the job, starting 27 of the 36 games last season. Joining the rotation is Mississippi State transfer Reginald Delk, a sweet-shooting 6'4" junior (and the nephew of Tony Delk, who starred for Pitino at Kentucky in the mid-'90s).
"We're a deep team," says Pitino. "And we need to be, because this is the strongest the Big East has ever been. There are 11 or 12 teams that are good enough to go to the Sweet 16."
Driving the Cardinals is the memory of how last season ended: with an 83--73 loss to North Carolina, one game short of the Final Four. "We know we've got a lot of talent," says Williams, "but at the end of the day, you've still got to win."
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* HIGH SCHOOL STATISTICS